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Stags, Smokers, and Coochies: Adventures in Old-Timey Porn

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Well it’s the day after Valentine’s Day, faithful Nursing Clio readers, and what better way to nurse our romance hangovers than a good, old-fashioned chat about the history of porn. Now, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I spent a good deal of this past semester looking at lots and lots and lots of porn. In fact, between September and December of 2012, I probably viewed more “pornographic” images than I have in my entire life. This immersion into “adult entertainment” was not something I ever envisioned as being a part of my graduate school journey, but it’s a funny thing where one finds herself on the way to a PhD. Don’t get me wrong, as a historian of gender and medicine, I have seen my fair share of historical lady parts and man bits – just not quite from this perspective. But you see, when acclaimed cultural anthropologist, Gayle Rubin offers a graduate seminar on the infamous Feminist Sex Wars of the 1970s and 80s, you don’t hesitate to jump right into the porn fire.

Now, I could (and probably will) write a future post on the Feminist Sex Wars and what I learned from Rubin. Certainly the battles over pornography within “second-wave” feminist circles were complicated and constitute a subject worthy of a thoughtful and critical blogpost. But since I am feeling neither thoughtful nor critical today (I blame it on Valentine chocolate overload), I would instead like to share with you my pet project for Rubin’s grad seminar:  the history of pornographic film (AKA stag films, smokers, blue reels, or coochies).

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Most film historians disagree on when and where the first stag film was produced in the United States. Cripple Creek, Colorado and New York City are among several towns that claim to be the site of the first American-made porn film. Regardless of which city can legitimately make its claim to pornography fame, there is no doubt that the industry flourished in many towns and cities across the country by the 1920s. In fact, in 1928 the National Committee for Study of Social Values in Motion Pictures argued that fifty stag films had been produced in 1927 alone. Pop culture author Dave Thompson has used these figures to estimate that 300 to 400 such films were produced in America during the 1920s.

Historians have no way of knowing when and where the oldest American stag film was produced, but the general consensus is that the 1915  film, A Free Ride, is the oldest surviving American pornographic film (Although this 1915 date is a disputed estimate). In the movie, two women and a man take a ride through the countryside in his motorcar. When the man pulls over to the side of the road to relieve himself, the women become sexually excited, and the three eventually engage in sexual intercourse (If you are a brave soul, you can watch the film in its entirety here, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!).  A Free Ride follows the pattern that still remains strong in most of today’s present-day pornography – a premise light on narrative and heavy on performing sexual acts. Other early stag films like The Pick Up (1923), The Casting Couch (1924), Wonders of the Unseen World (1927), and many others follow this time-honored ritual of pornographic storytelling.

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Still from A Free Ride

Because the advertising, sale, and distribution of obscene materials was illegal under the Comstock Laws, producers of stag films avoided using the postal service to circulate their films. Instead, filmakers relied on a wide variety of distribution methods depending on time period and geography. Although brothels and “secret cinemas” dominated the pornographic film industry in the first decade of the twentieth century, by the 1920s, film producers began hiring traveling projectionists to pedal their products. These distributors serviced film clubs, university film societies, and art houses. The typical scenario consisted of a roadshow operator bringing his projector and two or three reels to stag parties, frat houses or “smokers.” Traveling projectionists relied on word of mouth for their livelihood and worked to gain trustworthy and entertaining reputations so that return visits to communities would bring more business.

Prior to the 1950s, the stag film remained largely a white, male, heterosexual affair. Film historians, Al Di Lauro and Gerald Rabkin argue that the viewing of stag films became part a “folk ritual tradition of the American male,” in that the process of watching, discussing, laughing, and catcalling at a porno worked as a homosocial bonding act between men before the age of adult theaters and video cassettes (or internet porn IMGtoday). Lisa Williams disagrees with Di Lauro and Rabkin’s nostalgic and somewhat simplistic analysis of stag film culture. Williams instead theorizes that the group structure of stag film viewing, combined with the absence of sound and identifiable actors in the early days, served as an instructional medium rather than an outlet for immediate sexual gratification. She argues that the stag film does not seek to immediately satisfy, but only to educate and arouse so that its viewers can seek satisfaction elsewhere. Although Di Lauro, Rabkin, Williams, and other folks disagree on the underpinnings of stag film consumption theory, it is clear that the exclusivity and secrecy of the ritual in the early-twentieth century protected the industry from large-scale prosecutions under various obscenity laws around the country.

While we know a great deal about the rituals surrounding stag film consumption in the early-twentieth century, little is known about the actual performers who appeared in front of the camera. Producers, technicians, and actors left no identifiable marks in the historical record. Journalists, collectors, and fans alike have often speculated as to the identity of stag film performers and those who funded their production. The most popular theory being that organized crime produced most stag films and that they forced junkies, prostitutes, and street people to “star” in their movies.  There is, however, little evidence to support this assertion.

Another popular rumor among stag film enthusiasts is that many Hollywood movie stars either got their start in pornographic movies or filmed stags in disguise after already becoming famous. Urban legends abound with rumors that people like Joan Crawford, Creighton Hale, Marylyn IMG_0007Monroe, and many others starred in early stag films. Like the organized crime rumor, the claim of Hollywood starlets performing in stag films is hard to verify; the assertion made all the more titillating since many stag film performers resembled famous actors in some manner or fashion. Additionally, many early-stag film performers did, in fact, wear disguises, which served to substantiate the rumor of famous actors clandestinely starring in pornographic films on the side. Many actors wore wigs, mustaches, masks, sunglasses, and other concealing apparel during their performances, not to hide a famous identity, but rather to protect themselves from being recognized by family and friends. Rarely a target for prosecution in its early days, stag films were, nonetheless, very much illegal and many actors wisely chose to disguise themselves in order to escape possible jail time.

Although most pre-1950s pornographic films were produced and distributed for the white, male heterosexual gaze, as technological advances and cultural shifts occurred throughout the mid-twentieth century, so too did the producers and consumers of stag films. This shift in pornographic consumerism, however, proved extremely slow. In a study printed in Playboy magazine in 1967, Arthur Knight and Hollis Alpert drew several important conclusions about early stag film content. For example, in films shot prior the 1960s, male homosexual content remained almost nonexistent. In fact, Knight and Alpert concluded that only 5 percent of all stag films produced between 1920 and 1967 contained male homosexual scenes and only 1.4 percent of all stag films focused exclusively on male homosexuality. Knight and Alpert surmise that these films probably were still intended for straight male audiences – most likely compilations of exotic and forbidden sex acts. The film, Three Comrades, is an example of one such film from the 1950s. According to film historian, Jack Stephenson, the film makes use of ambiguous intertitles in order to distance itself from the intimate homosexual content and legitimize its viewing to an all-male, straight audience.

jpgThis absence of pornographic film produced by and for gay and lesbian communities (or any other minority group for that matter) in the early-twentieth century can largely be attributed to economic factors. Thanks in part to World War II and military standardization, mass production made 16mm movie equipment more affordable and available to different groups of people. For the gay community, the advent of magazines like Physique Pictorial and Dance also helped to develop a gay stag film industry. According to Stephenson physique photography soon branched out to “physique cinema.” Among the more famous movies of this genre include The Cyclist  (1949) and Greek Gods (1954).**  

So, my Nursing Clio friends, that is the quick and dirty (pun intended) history of pornographic film in the first half of the twentieth century. The equally interesting and even more complicated second half deserves a blog post of its own. In a nutshell – Supreme Court cases, more advances in technology, fighting feminists, and pearl-clutching evangelicals round out the story. If my graduate seminar in the Sex Wars has taught me anything, it’s that porn, then and now, remains a controversial and hotly disputed topic. But even more importantly, history provides us with the vital context needed in order to recognize the nuances of the debate.

For Further Reading:

** The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University – Bloomington houses one of the largest (if not the largest) stag film collection in the country, including many of the films mentioned in this post.

Di Lauro, Al, and Gerald Rabkin (1976) Dirty Movies: an Illustrated History of The Stag Film, 1915-1970, New York: Chelsea House; distributed by Whirlwind Book.

Kendrick, W. (1996). The Secret Museum: Pornography In Modern Culture. Los Angeles: First California Paperback Printing.

Knight, Arthur and Hollis Alpert (1971). Playboy’s Sex in Cinema, Chicago: Playboy Press.

Lehman, Peter (Ed.). (2006). Pornography: Film and Culture. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Stevenson, Jack “From the Bedroom to Bijou: A Secret History of Gay Cinema,” Film Quarterly 51, no. 1 (Autumn 1997).

Thompson, Dave. 2007. Black and white and blue adult cinema from the Victorian age to the VCR. Toronto: ECW Press.

 Williams, Lisa. (1989). Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible”. Berkeley: University of California Press.

 

 

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jessica #

    I’m right there with you! I’m working towards my masters in public history, and I spent the last semester analyzing Playboy Magazines from 1965-75! Never seen so much skin and boobs in such a short period in my life, haha. Love your article!

    February 18, 2013
  2. drunkfeminist #

    This is fascinating; the evolution of pornographic films from a homosocial activity into something more private is a strange one.

    Tiny, tiny correction: the Kinsey is at Indiana University Bloomington, not the University of Indiana.

    February 18, 2013
  3. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Today’s Sunday “Blog” From the Past is Jacqueline Antonovich’s article on stag films from Nursing Clio. This post was published back in February 2013. Antonovich’s post not only addresses some of the lore and urban legends surrounding these films, but why men (okay mostly men) watched these films.

    June 8, 2014

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